A Jam of Our Own: Cultivating Brave Space for People of Color in Contact Improvisation

By Olivia Treviño

February 2, 2024, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I began dancing contact improvisation (CI) in 2014 and immediately fell in love with the form, taking a deep dive into study and practice. While I always felt welcome in the community at large, it was impossible for me to miss that, in every contact space or festival I set foot in, the vast majority of attendees were white, and I was one of the only people of color in the room.  After eight years of practice and not much demographic change, the need for an affinity space for people of color within the wider CI community was clear. The Bay Area POC (people of color) Contact Improvisation Jam was created with the intention of increasing the accessibility and appeal of contact improvisation to POC by bringing us from the margins of the jam to the center, and by reducing the social-emotional barriers inherent to entering historically white communities and practices.

The POC Jam is a unique space with its own cultural feel. One year old as of January 2024, the POC Jam started as a Sense Object Artists & Activists in Residence project, and will continue to be produced by Sense Object as a stand alone program this year. I am one of the founders and hosts, the other is my close friend Inertia Dewitt. Our regular community members repeatedly share how important and nourishing this specific space is for them. And we have a very high rate of return for first timers, which is not the case for most contact spaces I have been a part of, especially among newcomers of color. As I have observed the jam this year, and had many conversations with attendees about their experience, I have arrived at an articulation of why this space feels so special and necessary.

CI is a practice that invites us to be as deeply in our somatic experience as possible. As POC in predominantly white space we are often dedicating varying levels of our energy and awareness to navigating and existing in white space. This impacts our nervous systems, reducing the energy we have to be in our somatic experience and enter into a state of ease, listening and connection. Several dancers who dance in all the various jams have commented that they didn’t realize how true this was until they experienced their increased level of presence in the POC Jam. One jam attendee, Ronice Stratton, said something to the effect of, “It is much easier to dance when you aren’t fighting the impulse to be vigilant.” It is a beautiful, warm and steadily growing community with a healthy future, and my hope is that it will support the evolution of the Bay Area CI community into a more diverse, inclusive and equitable space.

For more reading on race and other demographics in the context of contact improvisation check out Keith Hennessy’s 2019 In Dance essay Questioning Contact Improvisation.

This article appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of In Dance.

Olivia Treviño (she/her) is a second and seventh generation Mexican-American of Indigenous (Chichimeca) and Spanish descent. She is a theatre artist, dancer, activist, educator, drama therapist and pre-licensed psychotherapist who places social justice, decolonization and liberation at the center of her personal and professional practices. Olivia holds a BA in Theatre with a dual emphasis in acting and directing from Cal State Long Beach and a Masters in Counseling Psychology in Drama Therapy from California Institute of Integral Studies.